An awkward ending effectively mars the bigger ideas in "Pet Sematary", the latest in the long line of spooky Stephen King movies.
April 3, 2019
Drama, Horror, Thriller
Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
The Wendigo—as those acquainted with Algonquian folklore will know—is kind of the poster boy for all things taboo and evil. It’s a big-skulled fiend that pushes humans to tap into their urge to murder and feel insatiable greed. Medical science has gone so far as to name a type of psychosis after it, a culture-bound syndrome that gives the afflicted an intense craving for human flesh. In Stephen King’s 1983 novel, “Pet Sematary”, the Wendigo is used for a very important function, which is to draw a thin red line that reiterates the Frankensteinian dilemma. As Jud Crandall will have you know: “Sometimes dead is better.”
Thirty-six years after the release of King’s novel, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer expound on the story’s lamentations about death. The new movie, like the 1989 Mary Lambert version that preceded it, traces the outer lines of the King novel. That comes as no surprise at all; King has crafted a gruesome story with a wellspring of wicked ideas to reflect the uglier side of our humanity. Here, the focus is kept at the irreversible nature of mortality, specific to the horrific nightmare that comes with navigating the death of a child or a loved one. The filmmakers handle this with craft and skill, but to a lesser effect than, say, Kenneth Dagatan’s Ma.
The film is crippled, too, by its ending, which places an awkward note after its otherwise compellingly built case. The characters here, like in the novel and the previous adaptation, are confronted with death and the horrific places it puts your mind in. A young American couple (Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz) faces the incredible tragedy of losing their nine-year-old daughter (Jeté Laurence) to a freak road accident. Horrified and shot so far out of his mind, Louis, the father, buries his daughter Ellie on an ancient burial ground from which, according to their well-meaning neighbor Jud (John Lithgow), the Native Americans have fled, believing the ground to be cursed. Ellie returns home, albeit in a Shelleyian fashion—rotting, violent, and conniving.
That kicks off the movie into high-gear, and keeps a tight grip on its tension and scares. That gives the audience a good reason to sit through a heft of exposition at the beginning of the movie. It isn’t that the first half has little to offer in the way of thought. On the contrary, it poses intriguing questions that it will later address in the second half of the movie. And come time for the movie’s characters to face these, the effect can be unflinching.
This is owed, partly, to the inherent (but I’d argue, necessary) cruelty of the story. The push-and-pull mechanism typical to horror films is eschewed here, tracing an escalating mountain of dread, right from the moment that Louis decided to play God. It’s a downward plunge to a fever dream aimed at parents whose common fear it is to lose their children to death, be it a gradual or a shocking process. Serving as cinematic surrogates to frightful parents, Clarke and Seimetz deliver great performances laced with an understated but unmistakable tinge of constant fear. Seimetz, in particular, is fascinating to watch. She portrays a young mother genuinely scared to her wit’s end. I hope she gets more work after this.
Laurence’s Ellie, who takes over the role of Gage (Lucas Lavoie) as the young Creed resurged by the cursed burial, is an absolute horror. Her interactions with Lithgow’s Jud make her eventual demise harder to watch. The decision to choose Ellie as the returned instead of Gage is smart, thinking that nine-year-olds are more inquisitive than toddlers and thusly have more devilry to whip out, should the time come.
This brings me back to the ending. The idea of pitting a daughter against her own parents feels even more perverse than how the novel originally intended. Mary Lambert’s “no fair” sentiment is certifiably terrifying, too, but there’s something spine-tingling about a sweet little girl trying to corrupt a family unit and grinning fiendishly while she does it. However, in a move that I guess I can only call Blumhouse-esque, the movie swerves into a completely different—and tasteless, dare I say—direction. That effectively mars Pet Sematary’s bigger ideas, making it only an agreeable upgrade to the previous movie and an admirable reimagining of the King novel.
"Pet Sematary" laments at the irreversible nature of mortality, specific to the horrific nightmare that comes with navigating the death of a child or a loved one. Its bigger ideas are marred by a frustrating ending.